Penn State Wrestling: How Far to Iowa

Andrew Carpenean-US PRESSWIRE

Ed. Bump for exhaustive, great analysis. I'd put it in the stream, but we don't have that power. -DV

Tonight Penn State takes one of its best teams ever into the belly of the wrestling beast, the University of Iowa's Carver Hawkeye Arena. The dual features the #1 & #3-ranked teams, 10 All-Americans, 6 former national finalists and 4 national champions. It promises to be a classic and it's been given amazing coverage this week by both BSD & BHGP. Iowa wrestling has long been King of the Hill (with only small apologies to those few Oklahoma State fans of you out there), and with Penn State beginning to ascend that hill, just how far is the climb?

Last summer as I was trying to take my mind off Jerry Sandusky and Mark Emmert, I enlisted the help of renowned Adams County historian, classic country music apostle, James Cagney impersonator, and wannabe sprint car driver, ReadingRambler, on a small wrestling data project. While we’ve long been appreciative of this wonderful anthology of NCAA tournament wrestling brackets hosted at, we’ve been pining for a sortable database and, after reading recent articles such as this one, which reference ‘the data’ but don’t share it, we realized we’d have to create one to get at the data’s details. And in the Spirit of Internet, we share it here with you fine people.

With the help of Rambler and some bird I hired off Elance, who we've just come to call Miss Croatia, we made the following spreadsheets:

As they were each compiled from freely available internet data, we don't require any 'must credit' language if you download and use them, but I do have two requests. One, please let me know if you do use it, as I'm ravenously consuming almost all wrestling content I can get my hands on these days. And two, please let me know if you find any errors. I'm certain there must be some, and I'd love the opportunity to ameliorate them. Also, some of the sheets are still growing and I'd love any feedback for their completion or improvement.

With tournament data being so much more available and complete, we focused on that, but that is no intended disrespect to wrestling's dual meet format. I believe we'll see tonight just how compelling a 10 vs. 10 matchup can provide. Given that tournament focus, comparing program's success through the years centers around the following metrics: numbers of team titles, numbers of top-five team finishes, numbers of top-ten team finishes, numbers of individual champions, numbers of individual finalists and numbers of All-Americans. After that is a look at multiple-time performers at each of those finishes. So, what did we find?

Team Performances

Last March, Penn State finished with its most prolific team score in its long wrestling history. 143 points was good enough to secure its second team national championship in a row (and third ever), to best second-place Minnesota by 25 points, and to tie 2003 Oklahoma State for the 8th most points ever scored at the NCAA national wrestling tournament.

That competition has been held 82 times in the 85 years since its inception in 1928 (no competition was held during WWII years 1943, 1944 and 1945) and has awarded 79 team champions during that span (there was no official team scoring in 1928, 1931 and 1933). The overwhelming majority of those championships were won by Oklahoma State (31) and Iowa (23), but with their 2012 title, Penn State has moved into a tie with Minnesota for fifth place all-time, with three:


As you can see, only 11 programs have ever won an NCAA team title and only six have ever won more than one. Prior to Cael Sanderson's arrival three years ago, Penn State was on the list with the Michigan States, but they've long had a proud wrestling tradition. This past week, longtime friend of BSD and Penn State's best-known sports historian, Lou Prato, put out this piece on some of the early days of Penn State wrestling. In it, he covers Penn State's hosting of the 1938 NCAA tournament (in which PSU finished outside the top-ten) and this declaration by Penn State's first wrestling coach, Charlie 'Doc' Speidel: "Mounting interest in high school wrestling in Pennsylvania presages an end to the West's domination in that sport." The Daily Collegian reported that in a speech that year to the Clearfield High wrestling squad "Speidel stressed the influence of high-school wrestling on the collegiate sport by pointing to the successes of Oklahoma's collegiate wrestlers. He said that Oklahoma had sponsored high school wrestling for 20 years." Now, it would be another 15 years until Penn State won its first championship, in 1953 (and Prato covers the achievement beautifully), but how well did they do in the ensuing years until Sanderson's arrival? If we add in Top-5 & Top-10 NCAA finishes, we see:


Penn State has nine more top-five finishes & eleven more top-ten finishes than 6th-place Minnesota, but still sits pretty clearly behind Iowa State, Oklahoma and Iowa. So while there can be only one #1, and Penn State can realistically hope to chip away at 20-count lead in the National Title department, with Tom Brands continuing to man Iowa's helm, it's far less likely that they can eat into Iowa's eighteen-spot top-five lead and even less likely to diminish its thirteen-count lead in top-ten finishes. Although, with the way Iowa State's program is looking these days, they might be vulnerable for a climb up the list over the next 15 years.

Can Penn State Go Streaking Through the Quad?


It seems like all the great programs have at one time or another put together a dominant run of some length. Oklahoma State was the most recent to do so, from 2003-2006 (which will be a good subject to study if Penn State hopes to go beyond it), but Iowa's Dan Gable put the stamp of stamps on team national title streaks:


You'll note that Penn State will have to take care of business next month in Des Moines, if it hopes to even join on to this list, but they'll also be fielding a very strong, some might say stronger yet, team in 2014, so is that Quad-Streak attainable. It sure will be interesting to watch them try. But now that Dan Gable has finally made it into this post, Rambler would like to share a poem about every wrestling fan's hero:

The first time ever I saw your face, I saw intensity in your eyes.
And the double armbar was the gift that you gave,
To this dark and ignorant soul, my love.
And the first time ever I watched the Owings match,
I saw your pain shake Larry’s white hand.
Like the trembling heart of a captive Poke,
Who would serve at your command.

And the first time ever I was pinned by you,
I felt my death so close to me.
And I knew my pain would fill the earth,
And last till the end of this match, my love.

The first time ever I saw your face.

Coaching Dominance

Cael Sanderson is still pretty young, and very accomplished for his age, but how far does he have to go to 'catch' Dan Gable? Let's take a look at THE wrestling coach career benchmark. Gable was born 10/25/48:


Highlighted is his highest-scoring team. That 170 is still a record, but one I'm very interested in Penn State trying to tackle, a subject for another post here before March, hopefully. Also a record: the five individual national champs that year. The other glaring mountain in that record book snippet is the 15 team national titles. All undoable, right? Maybe so. What about compared to another, more-realistic, 21-year career--that of Oklahoma State's John Smith, born 8/9/1965?:


Highlighted is Smith's best (highest-scoring) year. Penn State was still ten points behind that last year in their best year. Note the 5 individual national champs, tied for the record (this year, and Iowa has done it twice). But the five team national titles doesn't seem all that unattainable, does it? If PSU holds serve these next two years, Cael will only be one behind Smith. Although, Okie should have a lot to say about that this year. Most realistically, however, is Sanderson 'catching' Tom Brands. Let's take a look at them together:


If Penn State wins the title next month, Sanderson will tie Brands in that department and could pass him the following year. They're also in a neck-in-neck race for numbers of national champions, while Brands has a nine-spot lead in numbers of All-Americans. It's going to be fun watching these two go head to head, for hopefully a number of years. And starting with tonight's dual!

Because of Iowa's post-Gable coaching transition to Jim Zalesky (who earned them another three team championships in that span), Brands got started as a head coach a little later than Sanderson. He also got his start at a decidedly weaker Virginia Tech program, while Sanderson took over for his mentor Bobby Douglas at a solid Iowa State program. As such, Brands has only been a head coach two years longer than Sanderson, but Cael is eleven years younger. This bodes well for Penn State fans. If we give Cael a coaching career of modest length, like Gable's or Smith's, that would mean him coaching another 15 years. At least. If his health & interest are on par with someone like Minnesota's J Robinson, who I think has been coaching 28 years or so, who can say what limit the sky would put on Penn State's wrestling potential? For this fan, I just hope he can keep his coaching staff together through the whole career and that all three of them stay at Penn State at least as long as their sons are wrestling in college. Here's a picture of Penn State assistant coach & former national champ Casey Cunningham and his three sons. Tell me they don't look like future national champs.


Oh, here's a pic of their mother, in case you're doubting their athletic or competitive genes:



What About All-Americans?

After team titles and top team finishes, the next metric to naturally evaluate is the performance of the individuals on those teams. How many earned All-American honors? How many made it to the finals? How many won championships? One important thing to note when answering those questions is how often the NCAA has changed the rules in the 79 years of competitive tournaments. I once started a spreadsheet to track them all, but it got cumbersome quickly and it remains incomplete. I'll gladly accept help in reviving it if you're up for it, though ;) The most authoritative doc I've found that documents all the rules changes is again hosted by our friends at In it, in addition to all the individual match scoring change histories, you can see the different points that were awarded to the team for different placements throughout the years. The short story is that in the early years, only the top three placements at each weight were recognized as All-Americans, until the modern number of eight was introduced in 1979. Another important distinction to consider when viewing this data is the difference between an All-American placement and an All-American wrestler. The first two spreadsheets linked in the above list show placement data and the second two show individual wrestler data. Most of it becomes more clear when you start looking at individuals who earned multiple AA honors or who won multiple championships.


Here I threw in that Championship Percentage just for fun. I don't consider a program's ability to get a wrestler over the final hurdle a real measure of its dominance. What else do we see? Penn State is still clearly ahead of Minnesota in 5th place in these metrics, but look how many AA placements away it is from Iowa. 120! Again, Iowa's program remains strong right now, so chipping into that deficit is going to be near impossible. And Cael would have to coach 100 years to catch Okie's totals. But across 15-30 years of a possible Sanderson coaching career, are 87 more AA placements than Oklahoma attainable? Probably not, but it's gonna be fun to watch nonetheless.

More attainable, and perhaps even more fun for we fans to watch Penn State pursue, will be the multiple-X AAs and multiple-X champions. Here we're looking at individual wrestler counts, not placement counts:


I can't remember what exactly piqued my curiosity enough to count up Michigan's seven 4x'ers, but there we are. Also, these are pretty easy to count out and complete this sheet using the other spreadsheets. Please let me know if you get curious enough to go through with that endeavor. What else do we see? Another fairly clear superiority to the Gophers, save for that two-count difference in 4x'ers. From this year's team alone, Quentin seems poised to up that number this year, and in future years, DT, Ruth, Nico & Dylan seem likely candidates. Of course, Minny has the Haus of Stein and I don't know how old the Dardanes twins are. Other than that, these metrics may be the closest Penn State currently sits next to the Iowa juggernaut. Ten wrestlers separate PSU from Iowa in 1x and only 7 in 2x. This should be an interesting development to follow during this coaching staff's tenure: how well can they develop / coach up the lesser-talented wrestlers in their lineups, such that they can earn an AA or two. If they can do that this year, with Pearsall, Conaway or Gingrich, oh my. Not only would that be unbelievably awesome in its own right, but if they did, some of those other single season records would also be in jeopardy.

Ok, and now for the champions.


With the elite level talent Cael inherited and has been bringing in these days, Penn State could be poised to eliminate that goose egg in the 3x champ department. Bubba Jenkins put an early heartbreaking end to any aspirations of PSU sending a wrestler into that 4x stratosphere (although RSFR Jimmy Gulibon & incoming World Champion Zain Retherford each have 'unblemished' collegiate championship records so far;), but on this team, right now, there remain a number of candidates. I nearly got laughed off the hawkeyereport board for suggesting this is possible, but empirically, it is. If Penn State runs an all-time crazy train on the field at nationals this year, each of Taylor, Ruth, Nico, Alton, Alton & Brown could still then achieve that 3x champ designation. That would mean that Ruth continues to abuse his class, DT finally solves Kid Dynamite, Dylan finally solves DSJ, Andrew knocks off, among others, Jordan Oliver, Brown somehow comes through the 174 pound gauntlet as top dog, and Nico outlasts McDonough. Also, if Nico thwarts McD, that would keep Iowa's total at six, as McD is a candidate to bump them to seven as it is right now. Now, all of that is outright preposterous to suggest will happen, but it could. And if it did, Penn State would tie up Iowa in that metric from this team alone. Gable's teams were, along with being stacked with deep talent and being coached by an all-time great, famous for out-wrestling their seeds. When they set that record of 170 points in 1997, half their lineup out-performed their seeds--including one champ from the #5 seed and one from the #6! (man, I gotta write that chasing 170 post!)

Twenty three total individual champs seems a bit of a gap, but that could be chipped into over these next 15-20 years, couldn't it? Especially with a high likelihood that many of Penn State and Iowa's wrestlers will go head to head. Speaking of (and in awful, end-of-post segue fashion), it sure is a heady time to be a Pennsylvania wrestling fan. Last March, in what looks to be pretty much a fanpost in the Post Gazette, Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Reiter wrote (about PA HS wrestling, but pertinent):

With its 14 weight classes, wrestling embraces all athletes -- tall or short, scrawny or stocky, fast or not-so-fast. When it comes to physiques, wrestling is the most accepting of sports. But, when it comes to character, wrestling is the most unforgiving. Wrestling demands extraordinary mental toughness, perseverance, the courage to confront daunting challenges and the will to recover from painful defeats. Our community embodies and transmits to our young people these qualities. It's our history and culture: hard-working, tough, resilient.

And with Cael & Cody Sanderson and Casey Cunningham now leading our state's flagship wrestling program, that toughness & character has a new opportunity to shine. And an opportunity to narrow the wide gap between Penn State and Iowa wrestling histories. And one of those opportunities is tonight.

BTN 9pm.

It's gonna be good.

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